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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. Shakespeare: Poems

§ 4. Lucrece

It has been usual to recognise a certain advance in Lucrece; which was thus entitled at its publication, though it had been licensed as The Ravishment of Lucrece and has, later, been generally called The Rape of Lucrece. The reasons for this estimate are clear enough. There is the natural presumption that, in the case of so great a genius, there will be an advance; and there is the character, and, to some extent, the treatment, of the subject. This latter still busies itself with things “inconvenient,” but in the purely grave and tragic manner, the opportunities for voluptuous expatiation being very slightly taken, if not deliberately refused. The theme, as before, is a stock theme; but it is treated at greater length, and yet with much less merely added embroidery of description and narrative, which, at best, are accidentally connected with the subject. There is little pure ornament in Lucrece and a great deal of the much desiderated and applauded “high seriousness,” “thoughtfulness” and the like. Moreover, to suit his more serious subject, Shakespeare has made choice of a more serious and ambitious vehicle—the great rime royal, which had long been the staple form of English poetry for serious purposes. The special qualities of this stanza, as it happens, are especially suited to such a theme as that of Lucrece; for, while it can do many things, its character of plangency—not for monotonous wailing but for the varied expression of sorrow and passion—had been magnificently shown by Chaucer and by Sackville. Nor is Shakespeare unequal to the occasion. The first two stanzas weave the more complicated harmony of rhythm and rime in which the septet has the advantage over the sixain to excellent effect; and there are fine examples later. The length of the piece—1854 lines—is neither excessive nor insufficient; the chief, if not the only, episode (Lucrece’s sad contemplation of the painted tale of Troy) is not irrelevant, and is done almost as vigorously as the best things in Venus and Adonis. And, if the unbroken sadness of the piece, which is not disguised even in the overture, is oppressive, it can hardly be said to be unduly oppressive.

On the whole, however, while allowing to it an ample success of esteem, it is difficult to put it, as evidence of genius and as a source of delight, even on a level with Venus and Adonis, much more to set it above that poem. It is a better school exercise, but it is much more of a school exercise, much more like the poems which were being produced by dozens in the hotbed of late Elizabethan poetic culture. Though it is half as long again, it contains far fewer single lines or line batches of intense and consummate beauty than the Venus. Though there is more thought in it, there is less imagery, and even less imagination; the prosodic capacities (higher as they have been granted to be) of line and stanza are less often brought out; the greater equality of merit is attained by lowering the heights as well as by filling up the depths. What is specially remarkable, in the work of the greatest character monger and character master of all time, Lucrece is still very little of a person—rather less (one feels inclined to say) than either the lovesick goddess or her froward lover. She is a pathetic and beautiful type; she does and says nothing that is inappropriate to her hapless situation and much that is exquisitely appropriate; but she is not individualised. In short, the whole thing has rather the character of a verse theme, carefully and almost consummately worked out according to rule and specification by a very clever scholar, than that of the spontaneous essay of a genius as yet unformed. From Venus and Adonis alone, a cautious but well instructed critic might have expected either its actual later sequel of immensely improved work or, perhaps, though less probably, nothing more worth having. From Lucrece, the legitimate critical expectation would be, at best, a poet something like Drayton, but, perhaps, a little better, a poet whose work would be marked by power sometimes reaching almost full adequacy and competence, but rarely transcending, a poet somewhat deficient in personal intensity himself and still more in the power of communicating it to his characters and compositions.